Miles Kington: The joys of adding another string to one's 'violon d'Ingres'

You might even classify Edward Heath as a multi-talented bloke who enjoyed music, sailing and politics. Unfortunately, he wasn't good at any of them
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The Independent Online

This has really been a great year for anniversaries. If you missed one by accident, there was always another one coming around the corner. Missed the Queen and Miles Davis? Here comes Attenborough! Missed Attenborough? Here come Brunel and Betjeman! And just when I thought that I had got them all neatly docketed and memorialised, I now read in The New York Times that an exhibition is being mounted in St Petersburg to celebrate the centenary of June 1906, which is the month, one hundred years ago, in which Vladimir Nabokov caught his first butterfly.

I kid you not. Nabokov was not just a master novelist. He was also a keen lepidopterist, and I don't mean someone who chased butterflies with a net; I mean someone who chased butterflies with a net AND studied them AND spent some years at Harvard working on their classification. According to The New York Times, he did a lot of work on reclassifying the Lycaeides genus, and earned a mention in Alexander B Klots's 1951 "Field Guide to the Butterflies of North America", which may mean nothing to you or me, but which gave a lot of pleasure to Nabokov. There is even a new book out, I learn, called Nabokov's Blues: The Scientific Odyssey of a Literary Genius, in which lepidopterist Kurt Johnson relates how he spent five years trapping butterflies in the Dominican Republic's rainforests, but when he came to put them in a taxonomic framework, he realised that Nabokov had already done it all in a paper written in 1945.

"Johnson and his colleagues," says The NY Times proudly, "named several new species after Nabokov's characters, including a Peruvian butterfly that was christened 'Madeleinea lolita'."

It's always encouraging to find someone who was respected in two different, unrelated fields. It's like being a librarian and finding that that nice Mr Larkin, the librarian from Hull University, is also well thought of as a poet.

The French even have a phrase for it, which we don't. They call it un violon d'Ingres. Ingres was the 19th century French painter who liked doing paintings of shapely women (The Odalisque, The Turkish Bath and so on), but who loved playing the violin as well, and would just as soon sneak off with a string quartet as with a canvas. So "an Ingres violin" became the handy French phrase for having a secondary activity. (Actually, it's not totally handy, because when you read a sentence like "le violon d'Ingres de Zola était la photographie" or "Emile Zola's Ingres's violin was photography", you can see that the syntax is already getting crowded...)

Miles Davis spent most of the last part of his life painting, so I suppose that might be his "violon d'Ingres", and you might even classify Edward Heath as a multi-talented bloke when you consider that he embraced music, sailing and politics. Unfortunately, he wasn't good at any of them. He certainly was a rotten conductor, and I have always assumed he let the crew do all the work at sea, which leaves only his politics. Enough said.

For it to be a proper "violon d'Ingres", I guess you have to be quite good at activity No 2. Certainly good enough to be taken seriously. Lewis Caroll qualifies, though whether his mathematics comes first or second I am not quite sure. Woody Allen's "violon d'Ingres" is, I guess, his clarinet playing. His clarinet playing is not the world's greatest, but he knows the subject back to front; not so long ago he did a series on BBC Radio 3 on the great New Orleans clarinettists, and didn't disgrace himself at all. (Actually, the great graphic artist Robert Crumb also did a lovely series on Radio 3 called "Sweet Shellac" in which he talked us very knowledgeably through his collection of ancient 78s of such things as Auvergne accordion music and bal musette bands...)

However, although Mr Sokolenko, the organiser of the Nabokov exhibition in St Petersburg, is a microbiologist, he insists that Nabokov's training as an entomologist also affected the way he wrote, and that his detailed prose style is a reflection of his scientific culture.

Tomorrow I shall inspect this claim and pour scorn on it.